The Fischer Controversy: Examining the Foundations of the First World War

ANY truly effective study of the so-called ‘Fischer Controversy’ must begin with a thorough examination of the various factors which actually preceded the start of the First World War. Secondly, it must examine the German and Marxist interpretations of the conflict before going on to study Franz Fischer’s own controversial thesis. Finally, this article will conclude by either rejecting or validating the claim that Germany was deliberately planning the First World War prior to the eventual outbreak of hostilities in 1914.

The origins of World War I have been an object of fascination for generations of historians, many of whom have portrayed the War as an inevitable development whereby an old imperialistic empire finally clashed with the emerging force of the new democracies. Others have been susceptible to the myth that pre-war Europe represented the last real age of political, social and economic stability. This latter view is far from realistic and, despite what many monarchists think of the wholesale destruction of the Austro-Hungarian dynasty, there can be no doubt that by employing an effective system of historical analysis we soon find that daily life in Germany can be shown to have been woefully inadequate and literally crying out for change.

But unfortunately, whilst attempts to apportion blame for the First World War are part of the inevitable process of coming to terms with what was arguably the most horrific and destructive war in recent history, such efforts do seem to avoid recognising that there were a great many factors involved. However, despite her long-term desire for glory upon the European stage, Germany was certainly not unique in terms of being imperialistic and World War I was – inevitably – a penultimate clash between several aspiring empires and alliances. Apart from the might of the Austro-Hungarian dynasty, the early part of the twentieth century saw the full emergence of the Ottoman Empire and Russia was also evolving into a strong European power. In addition, Britain and France represented a rising liberal-democratic alliance. So whilst war does seem to have been inevitable, in recent years historians have tried to account for its actual origins by seeking to blame one nation in particular. Indeed, in the direct aftermath of the conflict Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles was specifically designed to shift the blame for the war onto German shoulders, although the German nation refused to accept its own complicity and “signed the Treaty only under duress”[1]. In addition, long after the Kaiser’s abdication in 1918, textbooks published in German secondary schools during the 1920’s continued to reject the terms of the Treaty, claiming that

“every informed person inside and outside Germany knows that Germany is absolutely innocent with regard to the outbreak of war. Russia, France and England wanted war and unleashed it.” [2]

Even Marxists have refused to denounce the German nation for what many perceive as her characteristic warmongering attitude, preferring instead to blame the squabbling participants of a wider Capitalist charade. ndeed, when Lenin published a pamphlet in 1916 entitled Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, he pointed out that the war in 1914 had been caused by

“economic rivalries generated by cliques of highly-organised financial monopolies and cartels putting pressure on their respective governments.” [3]

Whatever one may think of Communism, in the circumstances the main thrust of Lenin’s frank analysis does appear to be reasonably viable. With regard to the Treaty of Versailles and the implication that Germany alone was responsible for the cataclysmic events of 1914, A.J.P. Taylor was rather less sympathetic towards England’s wartime opponents. Taylor believed that a warmongering bloodlust fed by traditional Prussianism was something especially particular to the German psyche. On the other hand, the study of World War I was not an area in which Taylor excelled and, perhaps due to his reputation as “a sentimental populist”[4], he had no access to the German archives and based his wild assertions on character assassination rather than upon the consequences of German decision-making. But as the ‘war guilt’ controversy continued to rage, it was not until the early-1960’s that a concise argument supporting the theory of German culpability finally emerged.

In 1961 a certain Franz Fischer published his Griff Nach der Weltmacht [‘Germany’s Aims in the First World War’], in which he sought to provide strong documentary evidence illustrating Germany’s secret plans for military confrontation. The fact that a native German had attempted to blame his own Fatherland for starting the First World War led to a huge storm of controversy. Fischer’s book created an outcry and he was vigorously attacked for being unpatriotic. Fischer’s first claim alluded to the fact that Germany had hoped that a conflict in Europe would arise from her decision to back Austria against the Serbians. Prior to 1914, the Serbians harboured their own imperialistic dreams and, as Slavs, looked to their co-racialist Russian allies for support. As the conflict in the Balkans began to escalate with Serbia asserting her supremacy over the whole region, the situation finally erupted with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. However, Fischer did not believe that this incident was the actual cause of the Great War itself, but simply the trigger. The cataclysmic events which took place in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914, led – in Fischer’s opinion – to a premeditated chain of events. His unique thesis hinted at a programme which had been drafted in anticipation of an eventual German victory. This is where Fischer’s vital documentary evidence comes in.

By clearly unearthing and then subsequently publishing Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg’s infamous ‘September Programme’, Fischer was able to demonstrate that Germany was indeed not only preparing to mobilise for war, but also had a desire for all-out war itself. On September 9th, 1914, Bethmann Hollweg, the German Chancellor, had stated that the general aim of the War was the stability of the German Reich and that

“for this purpose France must be so weakened as to make her revival as a great power impossible for all time. Russia must be thrust back as far as possible from Germany’s eastern frontier and her domination of the non-Russian vassal peoples broken.” [5]

The ‘September Programme’ went on to suggest that parts of France were to be annexed and, more importantly, that Belgium must “be reduced to a vassal state”[6]. The significance of Bethmann Hollweg’s reference to Belgium soon becomes very clear if one considers her invaluable role in the Schleiffen Plan.

The Schleiffen Plan was the basis of the German attack in the West during 1914. At this time, France and Russia had a pact in which both nations agreed to fight on the same side. The plan itself was specifically designed to counteract the potential for a war on two fronts and this is precisely why Bethmann Hollweg had suggested that France be dealt with first. However, in order to attack France and fulfil its Parisian objectives, the Plan required the German Army to advance through neutral Belgian territory. When Belgium refused to permit German troops onto her soil, the Germans used force and promised to release the country after Germany’s strategic objectives had been carried out. This, however, was a rather transparent promise given that the German Chancellor wanted to make Belgium entirely subservient to the expanding German Empire.

Needless to say, the initial Belgian refusal had deprived Germany of her diplomatic strength and therefore Britain and France each declared war. Despite the fact that Germany’s original Schleiffen Plan had actually fallen short of its objectives, Fischer’s controversial allegations – made public almost fifty years later – led to a storm of protest from his academic contemporaries. An attempt was made to ban him from the archives, and his funding was withdrawn by the angry German establishment. Fischer’s opponents claimed that his work was based on “allegedly suspect theories and concepts”[7] and that the ‘September Programme’ was not as important as Fischer would have the world believe.

It was argued that Germany was forced into making preparations for war in order to defend herself against the alliance of France, Russia and Britain. But, as Rohl correctly states, Fischer’s opponents

“seemed only dimly aware that this position implied the admission that Germany had begun war deliberately against France and Russia” [8].

In order to further strengthen the argument against his critics, in 1969 Fischer published a second book entitled War of Illusions. This book was even more controversial, in that it concentrated specifically upon the earlier period of 1911-14. In this book, Fischer argued that Germany had planned to expand its military capabilities at a War Council meeting held as early as 1912. By examining an entry in Admiral von Muller’s diary for December 8th, 1912, Fischer was able to show that Admiral Tirpitz – Kaiser Wilhelm II’s naval secretary – had suggested that work on the Kiel Canal be completed as soon as possible and that Germany’s fleet of Uboats be increased immediately. Furthermore, the Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, stated that in his opinion “war is unavoidable. But we must do more through the press to prepare the popularity of a war against Russia”[9]. However, it was Tirpitz himself who uttered what was to become the most damning indictment of German war guilt, demanding in no uncertain terms that there be a brief “postponement of the great fight for one-and-a-half years”[10], with the Kaiser only agreeing to such a postponement very reluctantly. During Muller’s account of the 1912 War Council, there is no mention of any military representative verbally opposing such suggestions and those present seemed pretty confirmed in their respective warlike aspirations. On the contrary, the German military leadership – for no politicians were allowed to attend – was more concerned with temporarily delaying hostilities in order to ‘justify’ any subsequent call to arms and thus portray Germany as an innocent victim of external forces beyond her control. Fischer’s intelligent use of Muller’s diary, however, is validated by the writings of Hopman, Leuckart, Wenninger and Claparede; all of which correspond to an incredible degree.

Fischer certainly made one thing clear in his re-evaluation of the origins of the First World War. From that moment on German mobilisation increased at an alarming rate, giving even further credence to Fischer’s confirmed belief that Archduke Ferdinand’s symbolic assassination in Sarajevo – precisely twenty-one months later (and only three months after Tirpitz’s suggested postponement) – was merely the final pretext for all-out war. It is also interesting to note that the widening of the Kiel Canal was completed just a few days before the assassination took place.

To conclude, it certainly seems as though Fritz Fischer’s controversial thesis is correct and that Kaiser Wilhelm II did indeed embark upon “a long-term bid to secure world power status by using Tirpitz’s battle fleet plan as a lever to effect a revolutionary shift in the global balance of power in Germany’s favour.”[11] Most notably, the 1914 Schleiffen Plan was masterminded by a man who had earlier attended the 1912 War Council which, in light of Fischer’s penetrating analysis, may be regarded as the forerunner of the Schleiffen Plan itself. The man was Helmuth von Moltke who, almost certainly, shared the militaristic aims of his fellow war councillors. In addition, as if further proof of Fischer’s claims were really needed, it is worth mentioning two final sources which validate his thesis beyond any doubt. Firstly, on December 31st, 1911, the Crown Prince wrote to his father – the Kaiser – that “as a result of quiet and careful reflection”[12], he was hoping that the New Year would bring war. Secondly, when Rudolf von Valentini – head of the Kaiser’s Civil Cabinet – was invited to dine at the New Palace in Potsdam on July 30th, 1914, he consequently noted in his diary that “all were full of kriegslust.”[13]

As Fritz Fischer wrote himself: “There is no doubt that the war which the German politicians started in July 1914 was not a preventive war fought out of fear and despair. It was an attempt to defeat the enemy powers before they became too strong, and to realise Germany’s political ambitions which may be summed up as German hegemony over Europe.”[14] If Fischer’s definitive analysis is combined with Lenin’s own assertion that the First World War was really a battle between the grasping forces of Capitalism, it becomes certain that future generations of historians now have a strong framework of truth in which to use their continuing efforts to try and understand the dark forces which unleashed the twentieth century’s most terrible example of orchestrated destruction.

Notes:

1. Ruth Henig; ‘The Origins of the First World War: The Historical Debate’ in History Review (Issue 18, 1994), p. 36. 2. William Simpson; Hitler and Germany (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 26.

2. William Simpson; Hitler and Germany (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 26.

3. Ruth Henig, op. cit., pp. 37-8.

4. Norman Stone; ‘Warts and All: A Rude Historian of Genius’ in The Sunday Times, April 2nd, 1995.

5. John C. G. Rohl; ‘Imperial Germany Part One: The Riddle of 1914’ in Modern History Review (No. 1, Vol. 2, 1990), p. 9.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., p. 10.

9. John C. G. Rohl; ‘Imperial Germany Part Two: The Riddle of 1914’ in Modern History Review (No. 2, Vol. 2, 1990), p. 10.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., p. 11.

12. Ibid., p. 12.

13. Ibid.

14. Fritz Fischer; War of Illusions: German Policies From 1911 to 1914 (Chatto & Windus, 1975), p. 470.

Bibliography:

Fritz Fischer; Germany’s Aims in the First World War (Chatto & Windus, 1977).

D. F. Fleming; The Origins and Legacies of World War I (George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1968).

H. W. Koch (ed.); The Origins of the First World War (Macmillan, 1972).

Nicholas Mansergh; The Coming of the First World War (Longmans, 1949).

Joachim Remak; The Origins of World War I: 1871-1914 (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1967).

 

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